Adore Your Core: 5 Ways to Build a Strong Center

When we think of our core, typically our mind goes to the abs, or the “6-pack.” While our abdominal muscles (rectus and transversus) are a key factor, the core also entails the pelvic floor, internal/external obliques, and the erector spinae (those muscles running vertically along the spine). Being a Pilates teacher for over 7 years now, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have, build, and maintain a strong core. Not only will it help to tone the body, but more importantly, strengthening the center helps us with balance, movement/range of motion in our other muscles/limbs, reducing or eliminating back pain through support, and improving our posture. Engaging and contracting our core muscles requires a lot of focus, concentration, mindfulness, and a strong mind/body connection. It’s one of the few areas of the body where we really have to tell it to work and remind it to stay active. Here are 5 ways in which we can Adore Our Core.

1.The Breath. It is an important vehicle in creating that mind/body connection and building a relationship with our core. Either lying down or seated tall, take deep breaths in through the nose, and powerful, forceful exhales out through the mouth (pursing your lips as if blowing out through a straw). Do this several times and notice with those strong, audible exhales how the powerhouse (the core) engages. With each breath out, see if you can contract more deeply. Feel the pelvic floor draw upward toward the diaphragm, the lower belly pulling in and up, and the navel traveling toward the spine.

2.The Ab Curl. Many may know this as “the crunch.” However, I would like to avoid using words that describe compression, rather, thinking of maintaining length to the spine and the space between the vertebrae. Starting on your back with knees bent, feet grounded, and hands behind your head you’ll take a deep inhale to prepare, then as you exhale slowly peel up the head, neck, and shoulders only lifting to about the tips of your shoulder blades. Inhale to release back to the mat one notch at a time. While performing these curls, make sure the arms stay opened wide and the elbows don’t close inward to feel yourself actively pulling the arms back as you lift up. Make sure to maintain stability with the rest of your body as if it were a statue – keep the legs from shifting and make sure your tailbone stays grounded (doing so will activate those hard to reach lower abdominals). If you want more heat or intensity, you can perform these curls with legs in a tabletop position or extended up toward the sky. You could also offer a twist to one side, alternating each time you take a curl. This will activate your obliques that run along the waistline.

3. Bird/Dog. This is a great exercise to strengthen the core and work on improving balance. Starting in a tabletop position with fingers spread wide and knees hip width apart, actively press into the ground with your hands, knees, shins, and tops of feet. Feel your muscles in the core, chest and arms firming up, and feel yourself lift out of your shoulders rather than sinking into them. Maintain this strong, lifted structure as you exhale and extend your right arm forward and your left leg back. Keep your hips level by flexing your lifted foot, making sure the pinky toe points straight to the ground. Feel your heart drawing forward so that your grounded arm’s shoulder stays stacked over the wrist. Use an inhale to release down and the next exhale to switch sides. Continue to alternate moving with your breath, feeling your navel draw up toward the spine each time you extend out. Make sure to keep equal weight in both the arm and leg so you don’t shift only to one side. Moving opposites will challenge the balance so remember to take it slow to help keep yourself stabilized.

4. Swimming. This Pilates exercise is focused on strengthening the back body: Shoulders, upper middle and lower back, and glutes. You will use your core power to maintain stability as well as the lift of the chest. Lying on your stomach, extend your arms out in front of you and legs stretched behind, all of which slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Inhale and anchor your pelvic triangle (2 hip bones and pubic bone) into the floor and as you exhale lift arms, forehead, chest and legs off the ground. Keep and maintain the lift and firm up the arms and legs. Continue to breathe steadily as you begin to paddle up and down alternately with arms and legs as if you were swimming. While your extremities move, you want to keep very still with your head and torso. Slower paced movement will help with this. Although your stomach is touching the ground, you want to imagine it trying to pull up and away from the floor.

5. Hollowed Hover. This exercise is one of my favorites and can actually be quite intense despite the small, micro movements being created. Lying on your back you’ll reach your arms behind you over head and lengthen the legs long in front of you. Squeeze the legs together firm, point the toes, and press the middle back into the floor. Breathe in and as you exhale you’ll lift your arms, head and legs only an inch or so above the ground – a hover. The arms should still frame your ears and you’ll look down at your toes creating a hollowed out front body. Hold for a breath in and then release slowly as you exhale. Continue to move through this with your breath, making sure not to catapult yourself up, but rather peel up and don’t drop down quickly, but float to the earth. You’re using your center body strength to lift up as well as to lower. To build up intensity you can hold this hollow lift for a few or several rounds of breath before lowering.   

     Through consistency and persistence, using these 5 techniques overtime, you will notice your core becoming stronger. Your awareness of your own body, your own self, will increase. Being connected to yourself, your breath, and your body will provide you with the tools to help keep a healthy, balanced, and supported body. Joseph Pilates once said: “The mind, when housed in a healthful body, possesses a glorious sense of power.” So go ahead and Adore that Core of yours.

By Stephanie Betzwieser